Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Why I love...Black Box Recorder

Most bands try and avoid social commentary. It often comes across as overly simplistic and crass (the Others) or obscure and abstract (Radiohead). Some bands dedicate their career to an overall political message (Anti-Flag and anarchism), but I can only think of one band whose entire career and genius is dedicated to a social narrative of middle-class Britain. The band are Black Box Recorder and sadly, they are no more.

The band were fronted by the beautiful Sarah Nixey, but the songs were written by Luke Haines (the Auteurs) and John Moore, who have both had subesequent solo albums. The general concept is making pure classic pop music, but with very, very dark undertones. The lyrics are what really sets Black Box Recorder apart from anyone else though. On their first album, 1998's England Made Me, they look mainly at the mundanity of suburban life and family relationships, with songs like New Baby Boom which has lyrics like "New baby boom and your father is a famous man, I know he loves me - now I've got the proof". Or the infamous single Child Psychology which was banned from British Radio for its line "Life is unfair, kill yourself or get over it" while presenting a narrative in a depressed child's head and detailing the child's christmas visit home: "An artificial christmas tree that plays silent night over and over again". It may not be a hugely accurate representation of subruban life, but it's all about characters. Characters that don't usually get a mention.

They take a particular interest in bored teenagers, like in Swinging which has the line "Are you a hardcore hooligan? Did you really burn the old school down? If I set fire to you now would you even make a sound?". Their only hit single, The Facts of Life (#20, April 2000) was an anthem for awkward teenage boys and puberty, puting off asking a girl out and then by the time he plucks up the courage "someone else has asked her first and she said yes" to which Sarah Nixey purrs "at this point the boy is probably thinking it's easier said than done and it's true, it's just the facts of life". Sarah Nixey's crystal clear home counties deadpan delivery is the essence of the beauty of Black Box Recorder. The lyrics and the music would not be nearly quite so potent without it - she is an English Rose but with a dark twist, which is essentially a reflection of BBR's music. The underlying perversity of middle-class Britain. This is best heard in Gift Horse where Sarah coos "I just want to be loved..." while Luke Haines and John Moore whisper sinisterly "they're digging up human remains..." while both parts finish on the line "...in Notting Hill", showing both aspiration and darkness.

In early 2003 they released Passionoia, which was took a faster pace and embraced electronica to a greater extent and is, in my opinion, their most accomplished work. The lead single, These Are The Things, was a euro-disco ode to, you guessed it, the banalities of relationships. "A pint of milk, a loaf bread, a magazine on special offer, check the weather forecast, buy a new umbrella, write a text message, send a get well card, I'll meet you in the park in half an hour...these are the things that keep us together". But the aspirational middle-class is given their best tribute yet in British Racing Green, which musically feels like a slow sunday drive in a british racing green Jaguar (and Abstractboy knows exactly how that feels!), trivialising the notion of the British Dream (as opposed to the American Dream) of settling down and moving to the countryside, with reference to "pebble dash houses underneath the flightpath", "clement weather", "everybody needs to dream, romance and love and eight hours sleep". It touches on the peculiarities of the British Dream which (as far as I know) no other band has done in quite the same way. I'm not usually one to think along national lines and think, on the whole, national identity is a construct based on myth and would describe myself as essentially post-national, but Black Box Recorder give deserved attention to the British Class System(TM), seemingly national obsessions with class status, celebrity, love/hate relationships with the monarchy...it is there and it is fascinating.

Black Box Recorder are now sadly disbanded. John and Sarah married (and were driven in a La Fee absinthe Routemaster from the ceremony), had a baby, divorced in true British style. John Moore works for Rough Trade records and has released an album this year titled Half Awake, Luke Haines has played a few gigs with the Auteurs and is still writing solo material, that is as dark as you want it. And Sarah Nixey has sadly disappeared out of the public eye, presumably to raise her child. But luckily the genius of Black Box Recorder is immortalised on these three albums and a Worst of. Gone, but not forgotten.

posted by Robbie de Santos at 3/23/2005 06:55:00 pm


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